Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

From Here to Home

Viet Thanh Nguyen explores the depth of our shared humanity and the height of the walls separating us in this Op-Docs for the New York Times.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1975, my family landed in Pennsylvania as refugees from the war in Vietnam. For a couple of months, we lived in a refugee camp at Fort Indiantown Gap. Recently I asked my father about the man who sponsored us so that we could leave the camp, and my father sent me a photocopy of the recommendation written for him by Joseph H. Windish. In Mr. Windish’s words, my father is “trustworthy and stable” and a “family man, having a wife and two children who he has obviously taken care of well.” So I appear in Mr. Windish’s letter, my first time, so far as I know, described in English.

I have no memory of Mr. Windish, an Army veteran of the Korean War who died in 2012 at 79. His obituary does not mention that he sponsored my family or helped my father find work, or that his generosity to strangers eventually led to the following additions to the United States: three generations of eight citizens, four native-born; a substantial amount of wealth (and taxes) generated by my hard-working parents, who started off as custodians in Harrisburg, Pa., and ended up as entrepreneurs in San Jose, Calif.; and undergraduate and doctoral degrees for my parents’ children and grandchildren from Stanford, Harvard and the University of California campuses at Berkeley and Los Angeles.

When we came to the United States, we were a minority as refugees and as Asians, but so was Mr. Windish, since the majority of Americans did not want to accept refugees from Southeast Asia. Some of the fears that the majority had about us refugees were realized, of course. Some of us committed crimes, including murder (a family acquaintance went to prison for this). Some of us ended up on welfare. These things happened not necessarily because we were refugees or Southeast Asian, but because we were human and did some of the same things that other Americans did. Our failures — and our successes — were due to our complicated humanity, not because of our ethnic or national origins.

To love, to laugh, to live, to work, to fail, to despair, to parent, to cry, to die, to mourn, to hope: These attributes exist whether we are Vietnamese or Mexican or American or any other form of classification. We share much more in common with one another than we have in difference. And yet these differences — of color, religion, language, origin and so on — matter because we make them matter, or because others persuade or coerce us into believing in they matter.

Five short documentaries about the immigrant experience in America appearing in The Times’s Op-Docs series testify to both the depth of our shared humanity and the height of the walls separating us.

IN “TO BE QUEEN,” Jessalyn and Celina, the high school students who seek to become the “Thump Queen” of Luling, Tex., enact the perpetual drama of adolescent desire to be popular, but underneath that desire is something even more fundamental: the need to belong, in this case to a town and a culture that is uneasy about the differences between whites and Latinos. Perhaps that uneasiness existed in San Jose in 1978, when we moved there, to a neighborhood of working-class and middle-class white people interspersed with Mexican immigrants and a new wave of Vietnamese refugees.

To Be Queen Credit: Farihah Zaman and Jeff Reichert

WHAT I REMEMBER, THOUGH, is the kindness of my elderly white neighbors, a brother and sister of the World War II generation, who fed me and let me use their phone to call my parents when I locked myself out.

Welcoming strangers into one’s home is a part of a tradition of hospitality found in many cultures. But many Americans insist that our immigration debates are about legality rather than hospitality. Our politicians have failed us in this regard by being unable to come up with a bipartisan consensus on sensible immigration policies and, in the current administration’s case, by carrying out immigration and refugee policies that are de facto racist.

A cursory look at our country’s history quickly reveals that many of our immigration and citizenship laws have been racist: the Nationality Act of 1790 limiting citizenship to “free white persons”; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 forbidding almost all Chinese immigration; the Immigration Act of 1924 restricting almost all nonwhite immigration.

Following in this racist tradition is the current administration’s almost total elimination of refugee quotas; its demonization of Latino, Muslim, African and Asian immigrants; and its targeting of immigrants who use public services, which cannot be separated from a wider conservative push to eliminate as much of the social safety net as possible.

The demonization of immigrants goes hand-in-hand with the demonization of the poor, and those poor and working-class whites who espouse anti-immigrant rhetoric have chosen their whiteness over their shared economic fate with immigrants as struggling, working people.

Anti-immigrant groups that might point to my own family and say that the United States should accept more people like us miss the point. We were almost not acceptable in 1975. How do we know that the refugees and immigrants of today will not, on the average and as a whole, work hard and succeed just as previous generations of immigrants did?

Numerous studies testify to the productivity of immigrants, but quantitative information cannot persuade those who harbor, covertly or explicitly, beliefs in innate racial and cultural differences. In the end, the battle over immigration is only partly about building a legal and political consensus about our immigration laws. The other part of the battle concerns the core vision of this country — as either a white-dominated country that suppresses people of color or a multicultural one with white people being just one group among many.

Those of us who are minorities are not afraid of a country of minorities. But for some white people, the transition from majority to minority is frightening, perhaps because they fear that what this country has done to people of color will be done to them. This zero-sum vision of a racial battle over limited resources is born from white guilt at best and white supremacy at worst.

In my family’s case, we were lucky that we did not arrive at a time when anti-immigrant feeling was so high that people of color were being arrested on the streets and at their workplaces, leaving only empty vans as haunting reminders of their absence, as reported by Mario Guevara, a journalist from El Salvador who works in Atlanta. “I’m a reporter,” he says in the film, “La Boca del Lobo.” “What’s your superpower?”

Boca del Lobo Credit: Jesse Moss

OUR SUPERPOWER AS A COUNTRY should not be found only in our military or economy. Our superpower should also be our ability to model the possibility of harmony found in diversity, of strength found in difference, of the love of the stranger overcoming the fear of the outsider. We do not need to look at the great men and women of our country to find people living out these models; we see them in the work of everyday people like Mr. Guevara, who typifies the immigrant ethic for justice that helps to drive this country forward.

In contrast to his kind of storytelling, the current administration bases its narrative on fear, hatred and mockery. These emotions shrink the country until it is the size of a Trump tower and as petty as the president. These Op-Docs instead foreground love, which requires overcoming fear, for love and its consequences can be terrifying. What happens when we let someone into our lives? Into our country? What happens if we dare to acknowledge that those whom we fear are just like us in their depth of love?

That is part of the story in “Darlin,” where a black Honduran family struggles to be reunited under the threat of deportation. A wife and a husband want to be together, a boy wants his father back, the mother and the son do the all-American act of buying school supplies and becoming consumers. The story moved me, because I could see myself, my wife and my son in this family, even though I am not black, Honduran or afraid of deportation (yet). This makes America great: our ability to see the humanity we share with others who are not like us, and to use this — rather than xenophobia — to animate our laws.

Darlin Credit: Isabel Castro

IF FEAR MOTIVATES OUR LAWS and our attitudes toward immigrants, we end up with the death of the American dream. This is the story told in “El Vacío,” about Karla Cornejo-Villavicencio, an undocumented immigrant who has given up on this country. Those who oppose undocumented immigrants might cheer her decision without understanding that the death of this dream signals the end of something that makes the country unique.

El Vacío Credit: Deborah S. Esquenazi

WHAT DOES NOT MAKE THIS COUNTRY UNIQUE is one of the things it was founded on: white supremacy. This original sin’s legacy is still with us today because we have never atoned for it, much less really acknowledged it. White supremacy justified colonization and slavery, the slaughter of the natives and the theft of their land, westward expansion of the frontier and the seizure of half of Mexico, and our forays into the Pacific. The presence and struggles of peoples of color for equality, and this idea of an American dream, saved the United States from being a completely racist country reserved for whites.

As flawed, mythical or sentimental as the dream might be, at least it offers hope and a rhetoric for transcending our most base selves. Without immigrants and without that dream, we become a smaller country, both in population and aspiration. We lose a source of energizing heroes, those whom Ms. Cornejo-Villavicencio memorably describes as the immigrant and refugee survivors of legendary journeys as dramatic as the Odyssey, except with all the monsters and no gods.

American nostalgia over past greatness, such as genuflecting to the “greatest generation” that fought World War II, misses how the immigrant and refugee experience today brings us people who are just as anonymous, dedicated and heroic as foot soldiers. Can we recognize the everyday greatness of the average person who has walked thousands of miles and endured untold misery to get to this country? The battle over immigration is thus a conflict not just over who we let in but also about the country’s identity and destiny.

In this fateful context, the story told in “Walk, Run, Cha-Cha,” about Millie and Paul Cao, ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam, has meaning beyond their own lives. Theirs is a great love story, of separation and reunification, and of the fulfillment found in learning to dance together. After a lifetime of work, Mr. Cao says of their shared passion: “We know we don’t have a lot of time. We’re making up for lost time.”

Walk, Run, Cha-Cha Credit: Laura Nix

THE SAME CAN BE SAID of our entire American generation, which has the unique experience of watching the American empire peak and decline. Our national midlife crisis, our sense of our slipping global power, can drive us to act out or to examine ourselves. We act out by longing for enemies to conquer in the vain hope that this will restore our greatness, and we mistake immigrants and refugees for those enemies. But if we are mature enough to examine ourselves, we can both celebrate the accomplishments of American culture and also acknowledge — and maybe even atone for — its terrible deeds.

We can help to make up for these tragedies by doing two things that foes of immigration argue are incompatible: renewing our commitment to the most marginalized Americans who are already here, and welcoming the immigrants and refugees who regenerate us. But we don’t have a lot of time.


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